Replication Complications

December 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some people can tell a joke. Others can’t. Same joke. One person has everyone laughing, the other gets zilch. Does the null response mean that the joke isn’t funny?

 What we have here is a failure to replicate.

 A couple of days ago, the Psychology Archive (PsyArXiv) published results showing a failure to replicate an experiment on Terror Management Theory (TMT).* Among the possible reasons for this failure, the authors say,

There was substantial nuance required in implementing a successful TMT study. . . . These nuances include how the experimenter delivers the experimental script (tone, manner ). . .

I offered this same idea five years ago. I didn’t use the term “nuance.” Instead, I speculated that some experimenters knew how to “sell it” —  “it” in this case being the basic manipulation or deception in the experimental set-up. You can read the whole post (here), but here’s a somewhat shorter replication. I’m copy-and-pasting because as we get more results from replication studies, it’s still relevant. Also, I liked it.

*              *            *             *

One of the seminal experiments in cognitive dissonance is the one-dollar-twenty-dollar lie, more widely known as Aronson and Carlsmith, 1963. Carlsmith was J. Merrill Carlsmith. The name itself seems like something from central casting, and so did the man – a mild mannered, WASP who prepped at Andover, etc. Aronson is Eliot Aronson, one of the godfathers of social psychology, a Jewish kid from Revere, a decidedly non-preppy city just north of Boston.

In the experiment, the subject was given a boring task to do — taking spools out of a rack and then putting them back, again and again — while Carlsmith as experimenter stood there with a stopwatch. The next step was to convince the subject to help the experimenter. In his memoir, Not by Chance Alone, Aronson, describes the scenario.

[Merrill] would explain that he was testing the hypothesis that people work faster if they are told in advance that the tast is incredibly interesting than if they are told nothing and informed, “You were in the control condition. That is why you were told nothing.”

At this point Merrill would say that the guy who was supposed to give the ecstatic description to the next subject had just phoned in to say he couldn't make it. Merrill would beg the “control” subject to do him a favor and play the role, offering him a dollar (or twenty dollars) to do it. Once the subject agreed, Merrill was to give him the money and a sheet listing the main things to say praising the experiment and leave him alone for a few minutes to prepare.

But Carlsmith could not do a credible job. Subjects immediately became suspicious.

It was crystal clear why the subjects weren't buying it: He wasn't selling it. Leon [Festinger] said to me, “Train him.”

Sell it. If you’ve seen “American Hustle,” you might remember the scene where Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is trying to show the FBI agent disguised as an Arab prince how to give a gift to the politician they are setting up.  (The relevant part starts at 0:12 and ends at about 0:38)

Here is the script:

Aronson had to do something similar, and he had the qualifications. As a teenager, he had worked at a Fascination booth on the boardwalk in Revere, Massachusetts, reeling off a spiel to draw strollers in to try their luck.

Walk right in, sit in, get a seat, get a ball. Play poker for a nickel. . . You get five rubber balls. You roll them nice and easy . . . Any three of a kind or better poker hand, and you are a winner. So walk in, sit in, play poker for a nickel. Five cents. Hey! There’s three jacks on table number 27. Payoff that lucky winner!

Twenty years later, he still had the knack, and he could impart it to others.

I gave Merrill a crash course in acting. “You don't simply saythat the assistant hasn't shown up,” I said. “You fidget, you sweat, you pace up and down, you wring your hands, you convey to the subject that you are in real trouble here. And then, you act as if you just now got an idea. You look at the subject, and you brighten up. ‘You! You can do this for me. I can even pay you.’”

The deception worked, and the experiment worked. When asked to say how interesting the task was, the $1 subjects give it higher ratings than did the $20 subjects. Less pay for lying, more attitude shift.

 The experiment is now part of the cognitive dissonance canon. Surely, others have tried to replicate it. Maybe some replications have not gotten similar results. But that does not mean we should toss cognitive dissonance out of the boat. The same may be true for TMT. It’s just that some experimenters are good at instilling terror, and others are not.

  * If you’ve never heard of TMT (I hadn’t), it’s basically the idea that if you get people to think about their own mortality, their attitudes will become more defensive about themselves and their group. Of the twenty-one replications, a very few got results that supported TMT, a very few got results that contradicted TMT. Most found no statistically significant or meaningful differences. 

Here’s the set-up for the independent variable: The subjects in the Terror condition were asked to write about “the emotions they experienced when thinking about their own death, and about what would happen to their physical body as they were dying and once they were dead.” The non-Terror subjects were asked to write about the same things about watching television — e.g., what happens to your physical body when you watch TV. (I am not making this up.)

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